Mel's Diner: An Upfront Abruzzese

THE DISH: If you’re in sales, “you probably need five restaurants that you always could go to, where they know you,” said Joe Abruzzese, president, ad sales, Discovery Communications, noting the importance of knowing where to get a good dinner and not have your clients waiting. “This is one of them.”

We’re at “Joe’s table” at Bobby Van’s, a steakhouse about three blocks from the Discovery office in Manhattan. Abruzzese and his former CBS and Discovery lieutenant Scott McGraw offered so much help populating the restaurant with clients and parties when it opened that the owners gave them their own boxes. So Abruzzese’s nameplate is right by his box, right by his favorite table.

Whatever he may keep in that box, you’re not likely to catch Abruzzese drinking during the day, Don Draper-style.

“We have a no drinking policy,” said Abruzzese, a B&C Hall of Famer who nearly 12 years ago joined Discovery from CBS, where he had led the sales team. “I had it at CBS and I brought it over to Discovery.

“When I came to Discovery, I said, ‘I don’t have a lot of rules. But one of them is no drinking at lunch, because our time is too valuable. I’ve seen—in the Mad Men days— careers dissolve because they didn’t handle their liquor,” he said. He told his staff, “By the way, if you want to go out at lunch with a client and the client wants to have a drink, please, have a drink with them. Just don’t come back.” Soon after he laid out the rule, an executive called and said, “When you said ‘don’t come back,’ did you mean ever?” Clarifying, Abruzzese exclaimed, “No, just that day!”

“The business is a lot harder now than it was in the days when there were three or four networks,” Abruzzese added, pointing to ever- increasing competition and confusion over how to use ever-proliferating available data. “So you really need to perform.”

Abruzzese’s other rule: “You have to wear a jacket and tie. Not a sport jacket. Jacket and tie, every day.”

The dress code can be tough on some junior staff salaries, so about once a quarter, Abruzzese, who is known for his style, gives 20-30 ties away. For the women, he supplies mani-pedis. “We try to set a standard, of dressing up, being professional, never being late for a meeting. Someone wearing good clothes and ties and jackets has respect for the people you’re dealing with. And if you’re on time, it shows great respect,” he said.

Having spent nearly 12 years at Discovery, 22 years at CBS and a decade at NBC before that, Abruzzese is, to say the very least, familiar with the annual upfront season, now underway. Highlights of a chat about upfront rituals and his biggest deals follow.

Are you superstitious about the upfront?

No. Well, I shouldn’t say that. The superstition is in how we present the upfront. We’re back at the same theater. I have a ring that my mother had given me from 1927. I always wear that ring.

You have some rituals, then—you wear a ring from your mom. Just on that day?

Yeah. Or when I’m giving a big presentation.… One thing I make sure I do is wear comfortable clothes.…You don’t wear new shoes. Try not to wear a new suit. You want to make sure the suit looks great, pressed. You want to feel comfortable on the stage.

What are some of the craziest or weirdest things that have happened in the upfronts or that you have done to close a deal?

This was sports. This wasn’t upfront.

So, at CBS.

At CBS. We were at the Super Bowl in Tampa. We were at Bern’s Steak House.... And we’re having dinner just celebrating our partnership. [Former Anheuser-Busch exec] Tony [Ponturo], myself and [Abruzzese’s former lieutenant] Scott McGraw.

Tony looked at me and said, ‘I want to buy the Super Bowl three years from now.’ He said, ‘Let’s construct a deal.’

You did a Super Bowl deal three years in advance?

And on a napkin!…It was all sports. It was well over $100 million. So at the end of the evening, we had a few laughs about it, but we agreed upon the [terms].…It got to be late and we had a couple beers and he said, ‘Joe, tomorrow morning, let’s have breakfast. If you don’t want to do this deal, it’s OK, but if you are comfortable with it, it’s a deal.’ So he left.

So Scott and I went to the bar, and I said, ‘Scott, I’m thinking pretty clearly. This is a good deal.’ So I said, ‘It’s a deal.’ I went back to our group and said, ‘OK, analyze it. What do you think?’ And they looked at it, and they went, ‘You know what, it would have taken about three months to get this deal done but these are about the numbers we probably would have come out with.’ That was kind of fun.

How about at Discovery?

At Discovery, one night Scott [McGraw] and I were running all the deals together. And he said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s close all the business tonight.’ I said, ‘We got to do it together.’ So we set everybody up with one number and said, ‘This number is only good until 1 in the morning. It’s not going to be here tomorrow.’

This was probably about five years ago. And every agency said yes. We finished in one night.…And it all got done.

What’s the biggest deal you’ve ever done? You mentioned that $100 million sports deal.

Actually a bigger upfront deal was with Bill Cella when he was running Magna [Global]. Magna is the global buying arm for Initiative and for McCann and a couple other agencies in Boston. And we got together for a blacktie during the upfront; he was my guest. I said, ‘Billy before we go to the black-tie let’s stop at the cigar bar for a cigar and a martini.’ Because those black-ties are pretty boring.

So we sat down at a bar, we’re having a cigar and a martini. And I said, ‘Billy, what do you think about the upfront?’ He said, ‘Well I have my ideas about the upfront,’ and he pulls out piece of paper with all of his clients listed.

I said, ‘I have mine here too.’ And we had another martini and we started looking at each one. And I said, ‘If we could have more money in this and less money in that and less money in this and more money in that…’ Because not everybody pays the same price through legacy, right?… In an hour we booked in the range of $425 million. And we missed the entire black-tie. This was at CBS: $425 million, a one-year deal for the upfront, all primetime.

It was done that night before midnight, over three or four martinis. Very old-school.

What’s the Discovery pitch this year? What’s the message?

The pitch is the breadth of our company. We used to be: How much would it be to buy Discovery, put on TLC? And how do we leverage everything else? Now what’s happened is some of our smaller nets have gotten so big, including OWN, ID, Destination America, Science. So now what happens is a much broader sell, which is good for the clients, because there’s different prices.....So I think the pitch is our entire portfolio, not just Discovery or TLC.

What percentage of your deals are across multiple networks vs. on one?

Very few deals are one-network deals. I’d say 90% of our deals involve at least four networks. I think this year, it’s going to involve a lot more than that.

How do you think Discovery will do with this year’s upfront?

I don’t know. I think we’ll do fine.

Offer a percentage?

I was at an agency, and they said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘We’re not going to sell below last year, and we probably can’t get plus- 15. So it’s probably somewhere in that range.’ Pretty big range. That’s about it. Past that? I think when everything falls to the ground, you’re not right anyway. You can—I don’t mean falsify the numbers—but you can slant the numbers: ‘Well, football was in this number last year, specials were in the number.’ You never really know.

How do you go about putting your upfront presentation together? Especially, as you said, the emerging networks are getting stronger, what’s the process of deciding who gets how many minutes?

It’s challenging. You try to do everything within two hours, which is a lot. So the challenge is just—you can’t forget about Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet. And now you have all those networks—so American Heroes network, which was Military, now needs more space. Just as Destination America, which has more growth, they need more space. Now how do you make it relevant? How do you balance it out? How do you make it entertaining within two hours? The answer is—you basically can’t. So you make it two hours and fifteen minutes.

But I think we have to prepare it better. We got to cut it back at least by 25%. It may be—I wouldn’t say less entertaining, but I mean less dramatics. We had marching bands, we had Nik Wallenda walking across the wire. Maybe it’s time to go, you know what, you’re here to see programming. Here it is. We’ll send you the facts later. Here are four new shows on Animal Planet, here’s a grand take. Here’s [TLC and Animal Planet chief] Marjorie [Kaplan]. And you know what? The reception would be all the talent. And that would get people there. So that’s the challenge.

You start thinking immediately?

As soon as it’s over, within two days, we go over what was right and what was wrong. It’s really hard to balance that many networks in a short period of time.

Let’s talk about the show of the moment, the unfortunate situation with the canceled Mount Everest jump following the tragedy with the avalanche. I’m sure advertisers understand the tragic circumstances, but I’m curious what those conversations were like.

Well, they were sympathetic. They were looking for a big punch and it would have been a great punch. But if he had jumped, after the deaths of the Sherpas, I think it would have been disrespectful, so we couldn’t do it.

Do you just take those deals and put them to the next big thing?

There are a couple of clients who might have been just for this event. Some of the clients will say, ‘Give me the next one. What’s the next one? When is Nik Wallenda going to walk again?’

Tell me a little bit more about these live events. You’re doing more of them. Obviously part of the draw of it is that it’s this dangerous spectacle.

With no danger, there’s no heroes.

There’s two things that kind of changes our portfolio a little bit. One’s live. The other one is scripted.….

There’s two things, I think, that changed viewership that I can remember. When I was at CBS, in-car camera in NASCAR changed the sport of racing. It gave you a perspective nobody ever saw.

And the way we did it with Nik Wallenda, the 360 [degree panoramic experience], gave you a perspective of how crazy it was and how dramatic it was. That’s how I think things are changing a little bit.

When you make deals with clients for programs that involve danger and the potential for things to go wrong, are they structured differently? Do you have backup buys?

It’s structured as if it were a live event, like a football game. By the way, not every client wants to be associated with it. But if a client wants to make a big impact—like Red Bull and the space jump—people will remember that forever.

Do you recall anything similar from your career that was a guide for you or that you kept in mind for setting out what your team should say?

I think we have to convey to the clients that you’re with them, protecting them, most importantly. Survivor was the first thing we did kind of live.

You take chances at things like that. It paid off. Definitely paid off.

At Discovery, when you do a show like Planet Earth, that series, I think those are game-changers. I mean, Bank of America sponsored Planet Earth and they were getting letters that said, ‘Thank you for bringing Planet Earth to my TV set.’ They said, ‘Well we just sponsored it, Discovery brought it to your TV set.’ And those are impacts.

Oprah is a perfect example. When clients first hooked up with putting advertising on Oprah and it just didn’t perform right away. Clients saw—honestly, I think they saw probably more than we saw—her value. They stuck with it. Now it’s really paying off. This is three years later. It took three years to build this. Which in the cable world is a short time, but in Oprah world, it’s not.

A lot of people have been in the business for a long time and they’ve had some successes. But you have been particularly successful. What have you done right?

Willingness to learn. That’s No. 1. It starts with willing to listen. I tell our guys, you got two ears and one mouth. That’s the proportion for listening to speaking. You learn more by what a guy will tell you than what you can tell them. That’s one thing.

I think you’ve got to love your business. I really love television. And I really like working with—this sounds crazy—because I love working with people. Working with people, it’s important. And I think I do it innately. When I’m with a client, they’re the most important person in that room by far. And I think you can learn from everybody.

If you can make them successful, with your product, making them successful—not buying the products but using the products.

Discipline. Can’t go out drinking all night if you have to get up at 7 to go to work.

Tell me about your leadership style.

My leadership style is inclusive. I think you have to be. I think No. 1 you have to make sure you see a bigger picture than everybody else. And it works down the same way. If you’re an account executive, you should look at your accounts. As a director, you should look at bigger accounts. As a vice president, you should at the bigger industry. I look at the bigger industry. I should look at one bigger picture that everybody works for.

Get everybody involved in the decision-making. I think decision-making motivates an individual. If you can get buy in, that it’s their idea, they execute it. I would do the same....A couple years ago, we had a tough time in the fourth quarter, about a year or a year and a half ago. I said, I can’t see the end. Let’s have a telethon. A fun telethon! I can’t see the money, but what can you deliver? In an open meeting. Each person said I can deliver $8 million or more. We wrote it all down and we had a lot of fun. And everyone delivered more than they said they could. Friendly competition. Most people get buy in, it’s theirs. Their ownership.

I give the guys enough latitude to win. And keep watching them. The more they win, the bigger the latitude. Then all the guys they start getting better and better.

And also, my philosophy—they would say, ‘You know, Joe gives me latitude to fail. And If I try and I fail, it’s OK.’ You just can’t fail all the time. I think that’s a big part of my management. I motivate by unity. We’re in this together. There’s no superstars, we’re in this together.

We pay guys two numbers, individual, as a group....This is camaraderie. That is most important. I don’t think you can manage by fear. You have to manage by inclusion. That’s kind of my management style. I care about everyone’s careers and their piece of it; their piece of our success. Everybody has to feel that they’ve contributed to the success in some way. If you do that you have long-standing people.

What’s one thing you to do to help you manage your time?

I write everything down. I plan my day. I start Sunday night. And I create a system.

Where do you write it? By hand?

I write it by hand. I have a list. I keep a list and every night I go over the list, cross out what I didn’t get done, need to get done. And that night, I write the new stuff down and I categorize it As, Bs and Cs. Because if you don’t and you do all the Cs, you never get to the As. Then you go the As and you have A-1, 2 and 3. There’s your list. I literally write everything down.

The next morning on my desk is a pad. I probably should do it electronically, but the act of writing things down makes me think of the solutions.

How did you get into the business?

Met a guy in a bar. True story. When I got out of college, I was in the Air Force for a year.

You went to Seton Hall?

Yes. Then I went to—before I was in the Air Force, J.P. Stevens, which is a textile company, was at my college. So this guy gave me his card and so forth. So now I’m in the Air Force going, ‘What am I going to do when I get out of the Air Force?’ Which is one year active duty. [The guy] wrote a letter and said, ‘I have a job for you at J.P. Stevens.’ So I came out of the Air Force and went to J.P. Stevens, which then was 1185 Broadway. I get a job designing shirting fabric.

So you did men’s shirts—

Yes, so fascinating. It was just the era—it was 1970, going from white shirt, blue shirt, yellow shirt, to striped shirts. And it was fun.

Then I got promoted to rainwear, which is three colors and four finishes. It was one of the most boring things I’ve ever done.

I thought, Oh my god, I’m not doing this anymore. The entire color left my life.… I ended up on 48th Street, it was August, and I run into Mike Sherlock. Mike Sherlock was director of business affairs at NBC. We had a couple beers, we talked—

You just met him, he was just sitting at the bar?

He was here, his wife was in the Jersey Shore. And he started having a couple beers. He said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I do this, this and that. What do you do?’ He said, ‘director of business affairs.’ I said, ‘I am so bored.’ He said, ‘Well I have a job as manager of business affairs at NBC.’ So I said, ‘How much does it pay?’ He says, ‘$11,000.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ He said, ‘really?’ I said, ‘I’ll start Monday.’ I resigned. And I walked into Rockefeller Center, this is a true story, I walked in NBC and I went, this is where I want to be. So I was in business affairs for five years. So I did all of the budgets, the talent negotiations, I did about everything....I kind of gravitated towards selling. I wound up being in planning for a few years, negotiations. And then I became director of sports sales in ‘79.

In 1980 they came after me at CBS and I spent 22 years. And almost 12 at Discovery. It’s a long time.